By Laura Keil

Tristan surveys a ridge where the crew is planting. /REINER THONI

A team of local tree planters is at the forefront of an effort to rescue the whitebark pine tree from extinction and they are replanting a forest fire burn while doing so.

Whitebark pine is known as a keystone species and is the primary source of food for the Clark’s Nutcracker. It’s also an important fat source for grizzly bears, especially in years when other foods are slim, and it regulates snowpack melt in watersheds and reduces erosion with its root system.

But threats such as climate change and a fungus called white pine blister rust have been decimating the tree population.

This is a problem for the entire ecosystem, says Randy Moody, founder of the Whitebark Pine Ecosystem Foundation of Canada. Moody says the Foundation is halfway through a five-year project to restore the endangered whitebark pine to ecosystems around the Columbia Basin, including in Valemount.

“It’s kind of the tree equivalent of the grizzly bear, or the wolverine, because when you see these, you know you’re in the sub-alpine,” Moody said. “They’ve got a remarkable form. If you hike the same trail and you hike it again in five years, it’s very likely a whitebark pine will be memorable on that route, because they just have that distinct look.”

Local tree planter Reiner Thoni was one of the planters tasked with recovering cones from existing healthy trees as well as planting seedlings in host areas.

A Clark’s Nutcracker on Swift Mountain this summer eating the Whitebark Pine cones. /COURTESY SHELBY ANNE HOLT

Last year the crew comprised of Tristan Kimmel, John Crowley, Liam Gustafson, Ross Mckirdy, Alan Lerches and Jonas McKindsey, and Thoni planted 10,000 seedlings in the burned area up the Hugh Allen.

This year they planted 10,000 seedlings on McKirdy Mountain in the area hit by a forest fire in 2018, or what they refer to as the “McKirdy Burn.” They planted at an elevation between 1700m and 2000m, an area where whitebark pine thrives.

“That entire burn’s been planted so it should be a nice whitebark pine forest,” Thoni said.
Last summer Thoni also harnessed up and climbed healthy whitebark pines to source the cones from healthy trees for new seedlings. Once up the tree, he placed cages over the developing cones.

Thoni placed cages on trees on Swift Mountain to safeguard the cones to harvest the seeds later on. /REINER THONI

“This allows them to mature and then you go back in the fall and you take the cages off and pick the cones to germinate within the nursery,” he said.

The primary way whitebark pine grows naturally is thanks to the forgetfulness of the Clark’s nutcracker. The nutcracker cracks open the seeds and caches them, but forgets about some of the caches, allowing some seeds to sprout. Without the nutcracker, the seeds remain locked inside.

But whitepine blister rust is killing trees both young and old. Whitepine blister rust was accidentally introduced from Eurasia, and made it to Alberta in 1952. Infection rates are now up to 60 per cent of trees, and mortality is 50 per cent and increasing. Damage to the tree’s trunk and branches can create entry points for the fungal spores.

Moody, who has a Master’s degree in Forest Science from UBC, says the solution to the blister pine rust is found in nature, among whitebark pines themselves.

“What we do is we only find the sickest forests we can—so high infection by this disease. That means a tree in the forest has likely had an opportunity to be exposed to the rust. And then we will find the healthy ones in there, there’s usually the odd one or two in there or more, and collect cones from those trees, kind of assuming that the genetics are superior to the genetics of the affected trees.”

Jonas poses in front of the burn up the Hugh Allen. /REINER THONI

He says the Americans have found rust resistance in some trees but planting all the same variety can backfire.

“You don’t want to put all your eggs in one basket and make all your next set of seedlings from one parent tree; we need to have that genetic diversity so the trees can be adaptive to changing climate, changing everything really.”

Whitebark pines thrive in harsh, open environments, areas that are open and get full sun. This makes forest fire burns an ideal place to plant them.

“Burns are really nice for whitebark, because it’s a slow growing tree, very slow growing. So they like these open areas where there’s not a lot of competition.”

Whitebark pine is also a long–lived species, often living 500-1000 years. Trees don’t typically produce cones until 30–50 years but no sizable crop is produced until 60–80 years and cone production is irregular with some years lacking cones at all.

“It’s actually quite unpredictable,” Moody said. “There were cones this year. But we have no idea when the next cones will be.”

Moody says they’ll be planting again next year and each year for the remainder of the program.
Moody grew up in the prairies, but fell in love with whitepark pine around the same time he fell in love with the alpine.

“It’s a really enjoyable species to work on because of the landscapes you work in. And it has these fantastic connections with wildlife.”

Thoni says the best place to see whitebark pine near Valemount is along the Swift Mountain hiking trail.
For more information on the effort to save whitebark pine, visit